Opening soon: a digital library for Europe

Europe's cultural diversity in books, music, paintings, photographs,
and films open to all citizens at the click of a mouse via one portal –
this dream of a European Digital Library could become reality this

However, further efforts by the EU Member States are needed, said the Commission today in a new Communication on making available digital versions of works from cultural institutions all over Europe. Digitisation of cultural works can give Europeans access to material from museums, libraries and archives abroad without having to travel or turn hundreds of pages to find a piece of information.

Europe's libraries alone contain more than 2.5 billion books, but only about 1% of archival material is available in digital form. The Commission therefore called on Member States to do more to make digitised works available online for Europeans to browse them digitally, for study, work or leisure. The Commission itself will provide some € 120 million in 2009-2010 for improving online access to Europe's cultural heritage.

"The European Digital Library will be a quick and easy way for people to access European books and art – whether in their home country or abroad. It will, for example, enable a Czech student to browse the British library without going to London, or an Irish art lover to get close to the Mona Lisa without queuing at the Louvre," said Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media. "However, even though Member States have made significant progress in making cultural content accessible on the Internet, more public and private investment is needed to speed up digitisation. My goal is to have a European Digital Library, called Europeana and rich in content open to the public before the end of the year."

The Commission today confirmed its commitment to help Member States bring their valuable cultural content online. In 2009-2010 € 69 million from the EU's research programme will go to digitisation activities and the development of digital libraries. In the same period, Europe's Competitiveness and Innovation Programme will allocate about € 50 million to improve access to Europe's cultural content. However, the total cost of digitising five million books in Europe's libraries is already estimated at approximately € 225 million, not including objects like manuscripts or paintings. Realising the vision of a European Digital Library (Europeana) needs substantial investment from national institutions, but at present most countries only provide small scale, fragmented funding for digitisation. The Commission today called on Member States to raise digitisation capacities to make their collections available for Europe's citizens, team up with the private sector, and address the following priorities:

  • More funding needs to be allocated to digitisation, along with plans for how much material will be digitised.
  • Most countries still lack methods, technologies and experience for the preservation of digital material, vital so that content remains accessible to future generations.
  • Common standards need to be implemented to make different information sources and databases compatible for and usable by the European Digital Library (Europeana).
  • Resolution of copyright issues, above all legal solutions to the problem of orphan works – works whose right holders cannot be found to consent to digitisation (IP/07/508).

Visitors to digital libraries can digitally discover copies of the famous Gutenberg bible – the first real book ever printed – at the British Library's website, the voices of Maria Callas or Jacques Brel at the French Institut National de l'Audiovisuel, or Da Vinci's masterpiece the Mona Lisa at the Louvre – without a ticket.

Some Member States have taken exemplary steps to accelerate digitisation of cultural collections. Slovenia adopted a Public-Private Partnership Act in 2007, providing new opportunities for private promotion of digitisation projects in public institutions. Slovakia has rehabilitated an old military complex as a large-scale digitisation facility using page turning robots. Finland, Slovakia and Lithuania used European Structural Funds to secure extra funding for digitisation.

However, the Commission's assessment also shows that in many cases there is a gap between the objects which have been digitised and their online accessibility. For example, only one in four German museums that have digitised material offer online access to it and only 1% of the material digitised by Polish archives is online.

 Source: Europe's Information Society – "Opening soon: a digital library for Europe" 11 August, 2008

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